Sunday, August 9, 2009

Holy Eucharist: the Center of Christian Worship Life

In John's Gospel Jesus confirms that the "work of God", for his followers, is "to believe in Him" whom the Father sent to humankind. John 6:36 seems to demonstrate that Jesus' hearers don't "buy" this Bread of Life talk, even though they've seen Jesus at work. But, then, neither have they accepted the Father's feeding them (by way of their desert ancestors) through God's many signs and deeds for their people.

Central to understanding why this is so and, indeed, central to understanding the sixth chapter of John, as well as the Eucharist, is Psalm 78 which is the alternative RCL liturgical psalm for Proper 13, Year B. Vv. 24-25 reads: "God Italicrained down manna upon them to eat and gave them grain from
heaven...God provided for them food enough." Exodus 16:2, also an RCL alternative for the first reading last week, says "the whole congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness..." -- both before and after this feeding, we might add. The Hebrew for "murmur" = "to dig in; to be obsinate; to complain all night". In v. 41 John says that "the Jews then murmured at" Jesus. John uses the Greek gogguzo = "to grumble". In both cases people complain and grumble because they lack the openness and risk of faith necessary to enable them to see what God/Jesus are really doing: namely, giving them life-giving food far beyond their desire for satisfaction of mere physical hunger.

God's feeding with the manna and quail was only an outward sign of the deeper reality of God's constant care and provision for God's chosen people. The manna, as Exodus notes, quickly melted. The people who ate it, the Jews' forebears, still died, as Jesus reminds them. But God's feeding of the people, God's enduring care and mercy and love go on endlessly: and that's the real sustenance, the real "bread" from heaven. So also in John's account in Chapter 6: Jesus is trying to help them see a reality beyond the carpenter's son from Nazareth, a reality beyond fleshly food which can sustain but temporarily. The two key phrases, in the Exodus story about the manna expressed in Psalm 78, and in John 6:31, are "from heaven" and "to eat".

Article 25 of the Articles of Religion (Book of Common Prayer, p. 872) says: "Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God's good will toward us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in him." So, the Eucharist is not only a "badge/token" or sign, though it is that. It's also a "sure witness", an "effectual sign": a sign corresponding with the reality of God present in us, at work in us expanding our faith, our capacity to set our hearts on God.

What Jesus focuses on in the Gospel and what we need to hear in regard to the Eucharist is that Jesus, in his Person, reveals to us who and what God is. That was what the followers were truly hungry for. It's what our real hunger is for today: the reality of Godself. The round Eucharistic bread wherein Christ is present to us and which we see before us is a sort of "window in the wall", to borrow a beautifully descriptive phrase from the late Monsignor Ronald Knox, through which Jesus reveals to us the reality of the Father: a window which gives us access to a spiritual world incredibly beyond our human imagination and experience.

Jesus is, indeed, "from heaven". He speaks of himself as One sent from God. He himself is the Father's gift of sustenance for time and for eternity. All people are invited to come to the Father through Jesus in faith. Belief, setting one's heart on God, involves a mystery known only to God; but no one who come to Jesus is ever rejected. The ability to "come", to believe, is God's gift, not a human accomplishment. Through it a person shares eternal life even now and, ultimately, attains it forever in being raised up.

It's no easier to accept this through seeing the Eucharistic bread over which we pray Jesus' words of institution than it was for those free-loaders in Jesus' time to accept it through seeing a man whose origin and roots were in their own God-forsaken village, Nazareth. "How can this be?? This someone (-thing) we're familiar with -- we know. How dare he say that it's 'from heaven'?"

Jesus' response, for them and for us, is: "Don't murmur. Question, but don't grumble in disbelief." Ultimately, we either choose to take Jesus at his word, or we refuse. He simply repeats: the one who comes to me, drawn by my Father,
"I will raise him up at the last day...he who believes has eternal life."

The last part of John's Gospel appointed for today, Proper 14, Year B, explains the phrase (from v. 31), "to eat". Originally, "bread to eat" referred to the manna in the Exodus. Jesus now contrasts that physical, perishable and passing food with a different kind of food: "the bread of life", "the bread which comes down from heaven", bread, which when you eat it, you don't die. Jesus says that he himself is this "living bread".

By implication in all which goes before this passage, a person who comes to Jesus in faith begins to know who and what God the Father is. And as one has this experience, a continuous one, she/he gradually realizes that her/his life is being sustained and completed. This isn't just a passing condition or a fad, if one commits to continuous growth, but is permanent: one begins to "live forever", to experience "eternal life". Finally, on Jesus' assurance, this becomes possible not only for the individual, but for "the world": "...the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." And that is "Eucharist", from the Greek meaning thanksgiving.

The Lima Statement on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, drafted in Peru in 1982 by over 100 theologians from all the major churches, speaks of the Eucharist as "Thanksgiving to the Father". In the Eucharist, the statement says, "God himself acts, giving life to the body of Christ and renewing each member. In accordance with Christ's promise, each baptized member of the body of Christ receives in the eucharist...the pledge of eternal life." That life comes to us through a sign: the sign of bread which sustains. While we let the sign itself, the sacrament, speak to us in all its richness of meaning, we can never allow ourselves to be so caught up with the sign that we become casual about the immense reality behind the sign, namely, the reality of Jesus the Christ, God's Son.

There's a Broadway lyric, a prelude to a song in The Sound of Music, I believe, which says: "A song is no song till you sing it; a bell is no bell till you ring it; and love in your heart wasn't put there to stay: love isn't love till you give it away." Through humble signs of bread and wine in the Eucharist, our gracious God "gives away" God's enduring love to you and me in Body and Blood of Jesus our Savior.

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